How sophisticated high-tech analytics transformed the Tour De France

It’s the most iconic cycling event on the planet. 

More than just a race, the Tour De France is a battle of wills and endurance that has thrown up some of the fiercest competitive rivalries in sport over the years.  

And in a race where even a fraction of a second can mean the difference between legend and also-ran, it’s no surprise that those battling for supremacy have turned to technology for that added edge.

One team harnessing the power of tech both on the road and behind the scenes is Trek-Segafredo. 

It has forged a partnership with US tech giant CA Technologies to roll out sophisticated analytics tools allowing its sports scientists and coaches to receive in-depth feedback on rider performance. 

The data is collected at a computerised head unit on the front of each bike and tracks power, heart rate, distance and speed. At the end of each stage it is then plugged to a computer in and analysed so the team behind the team can debrief the riders at the end of each stage. 

“Every rider on our team is overseen by a director, a doctor and a coach and from the that data can see if heart rate high or low, is her tired, is he going to get sick etc.” says Freddy Stouffer, Operations Manager at Trek-Segafredo.

The analysis of such a myriad of performance data has immense potential to enhance the competitive edge of the team, but the wider cycling world is still playing catch up, with the sport’s governing body UCI still unsure of how far to let the tech infiltrate cycling, with issues such as data ownership and anti-competitiveness being big concerns. 

As a result, coaches and sports scientists are currently only able to download the data at the end of each stage, rather than being able to analyse it in real time and feed it back to riders via an earpiece.

“This is what cycling is struggling with at the minute, where does it go next?” says Peter Simpson, Vice President of Regional Marketing at CA Technologies. 

“Now we can get video from the bike, mechanical data from the bike, we need to decide what needs to be used, what should be encrypted and who owns it? 

“Imagine if you could tap into Team Sky’s data? They need to decide if it’s public or private. This is the debate we’re in at the moment.”

One area where the use of analytics doesn’t raise competition concerns is broadcasting. CA Technologies has also partnered with Eurosport to allow fans to track a whole range of rider and race analytics data on their smartphone app. 

This "second screen" app was first rolled out during its coverage of Giro d'Italia cycling race earlier this year and was also being used for the Tour de France.

The app allows fans to track the peloton every step of the way and provides select individual rider GPS and biometric data, such as altitude, speed, power, cadence and heart rate, in real-time.

Peter Hutton, Eurosport CEO, said average viewer numbers for live coverage of the cycling’s biggest events increase by over 15% compared to 2016.

He said: “Technology and data is having a huge impact on the way fans consume sport and for Eurosport we want to ensure that we are integrating it in to our programming to enhance the viewing experience.

“We are enabling viewers to put themselves at the centre of the action, giving them a better understanding of the race, the riders and the stories on the road as they unfold.”

The incorporation of technology has also changes things behind the scenes for Trek-Segafredo. 

With a team of 27 riders competing right across the globe, getting them in the right place, with the right gear, is a huge logistical nightmare.

The team had been using Microsoft Excel spreadsheets to organise its behind the scenes operation along with emails and phonecalls, but now uses a CA Technologies system called FlowDock.

Looking like a more complex and professional version of that noughties teenage favourite MSN Messenger, the system allows different group chats or ‘flows’ to take place simultaneously, so teams of engineers, coaches, or logistics can communicate right around the world. 

Says Freddy: “There’s a lot of technology on the rider, heart rate and power, that kind of technology, but in terms of running a team that data doesn’t exist, we’re one of the three or four teams trying to move forward with that.  

“Some are still pen and paper and they’re not embracing this kind of stuff.”